Elizabeth Brown Bayer (“Betsy”) died on April 15, 2020, at the age of 92. She had been suffering from complications related to advanced dementia, but COVID-19 was the cause of her death. Even though her cognitive and physical functions were severely impaired in her last months, she continued to recognize and demonstrate love for her children and grandchildren until the moment of her passing. She was also able to continue expressing her appreciation to her caregivers. Helping others feel valued, listened to, and seen, was one of her great gifts. With warmth and genuine interest, she invited those she encountered into an embrace of care and gentle respect.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and the farmland outside it, Betsy was the youngest of the five children of Fayette and Geraldine Brown. She loved exploring the out-of-doors and sports, especially horseback riding and tennis. Tall and graceful, she was a natural athlete, and remained physically active throughout her life. Until after she turned 90, she practiced yoga and tai chi.
Betsy graduated from the Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland and Sweet Briar College in Virginia, majoring in biology. Following college, she spent a year volunteering for the Frontier Nursing Service, accompanying nurses on horseback to deliver care and attend births in Kentucky’s rural Appalachian mountains. Concern and compassion for those less fortunate than she continued to guide her activities, from a job with the International Program of Cleveland, recruiting social workers from across the world to meet and share practices, to involvement in the civil rights movement, to a myriad of volunteer efforts in the communities where she lived. Her efforts toward helping those facing hardship, be they people she knew or some she didn’t, were never made with fanfare, but with the remarkable kindness and empathy that also characterized her relationships with family members and friends.
In 1959, Betsy met and married Cleveland lawyer and writer Leo Bayer. They had four children in quick succession, and then moved to Duxbury,, in order to be close to Martha’s Vineyard, where Leo owned a cottage. From the day she first arrived on the Island for her honeymoon, Betsy was enchanted, especially with Tiah’s Cove on the Tisbury Great Pond. She and Leo raised their children on the cove every summer, vacation, and holiday weekend. Then, after their children were grown, they spent seven months of the year there. On Martha’s Vineyard, Betsy made enduring friendships, and was active in the Unitarian Universalist Church and its social action and women’s groups. She participated in contradancing, played music, enjoyed learning about both the natural and human history of the Island, and contributed to conservation efforts. Above everything, though, what sustained and invigorated her soul were the walks she took along the Vineyard’s trails and beaches, usually in the company of her husband, one or more children, a grandchild, or a dog.
When her children were young, Betsy and her family spent the school year in Duxbury, where she was involved with her children’s education, and encouraged their extracurricular passions, celebrating their successes and bolstering them through their struggles. She would say that being a mother was her most fulfilling undertaking, and her children feel that no one could have been more loving and supportive, or set a better example of the values of quiet strength, sincerity, and generosity of spirit. She eschewed the superficial, the artificial, and the fancy. Describing someone as direct and down-to-earth and as having a good sense of humor was high praise in Betsy’s book, and could be applied to her as well.
Even as Betsy was fully involved in her children’s lives, in Duxbury she also managed to promote the arts, advocate for affordable housing, make and serve meals at a soup kitchen, answer a hotline for stressed parents, and protest nuclear weapon proliferation. And on top of this, she knit intricately designed sweaters and stitched artist-level quilts that were marveled over by all who saw them.
In her late 40s, Betsy began pursuing her interest in early music. She played recorders of various sizes with various groups, including the Island Consort on Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually she shifted her attention from recorders to the viol da gamba, focusing on this challenging instrument by taking lessons, attending workshops, and playing in trios and quartets. With teachers and in small groups, she learned both the bass and tenor viols.
After the death of her husband in late 2004, Betsy moved from Duxbury to Roslindale, where she enjoyed proximity to children and grandchildren. She continued spending time on the Vineyard, closely followed current events, and kept up her knitting, making sure that everyone in her family had at least one pair of her multicolored striped socks. She was delighted to have contributed to the Women’s March in 2017 by making many bright pink “pussy hats.”
Betsy leaves her daughters, Jeri (and wife Valy) of Watertown, Sarah of Cambridge, and Amy of Brookline; her son, Nicholas, of West Tisbury; her grandchildren, Dara, Luke (and wife Alyssa), Joshua, Yoseph, and Chora; great-grandson Henry; and stepchildren Ann Bayer and William Bayer. Joining her family in mourning are friends of many ages and backgrounds.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Vineyard Conservation Society (vineyardconservation.org), the Parental Stress Line (parentshelpingparents.org/parental-stress-line), the Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org), or a food pantry in your community. A private service has been held.